Bright red nail polish does not save lives. Often, a small bottle of scarlet nail varnish does nothing but decorate nails. But it does save the life of Little Bee, the feature character in Chris Cleave’s novel. It reminds her that she is still alive despite everything that has happened to her. These small details transform “Little Bee” from a clichéd story of a struggling African girl to a story readers can relate to.When the book first starts off, Little Bee is a victim of the oil wars in Nigeria. Militants that come in the night have destroyed her tribe, her family, and her innocence. These men are employed by the government to keep the violence of the war hidden.
And Little Bee has seen too much. She and her sister are chased onto a beach where they cross paths for the first time with the O’Rourke’s, a happily ignorant couple. There, Sarah and Andrew are forced to make a decision between the lives of these unknown girls and something that is rather attached to them.
Little Bee escapes Nigeria soon after and ends up in an immigration center in Britain. She is stuck there for two years before escaping and finds Sarah O’Rourke, but not Andrew– he committed suicide just days before Sarah finds Bee on her doorstep.
At first, the book seemed mediocre. In the first chapter, Bee sounds slightly overdone, too foreign. Her English is too formal, and she often speaks of “girls back home.” But the characters soon latch onto you; perhaps the most entertaining and heartbreaking one is Charlie (Sarah’s son) who will not take off his Batman suit for fear that the “baddies” will get him.
But the plot twists keep the book afloat. Throughout the book, she struggles with her husband’s death, not using grand metaphors to describe it, but with habits such as taking two coffee mugs out of the cupboard in the morning. Andrew’s death leaves her with the responsibility of explaining Heaven to her young son. She also faces the dilemma of her affair with a married man Lawrence.
I soon found myself reading certain passages aloud to my family or feel my heartbeat rise during violent or tense moments. This book may not be an instant classic or change your life, but it is a well-written story that makes the reader pause for a moment. This is what book clubs have been waiting for ever since “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”
While “Little Bee” could turn into a contrived, sappy story of redemption and friendship between Sarah and Bee, Cleave navigates it out of treacherous waters with Little Bee’s matter of fact and sometimes-humorous narration. She often plays out dialogue that would happen between her and “the girls back home.” These girls view things that are a part of normal suburban life as silly (like commuting a long way to a job) or revolutionary and unheard of in Nigeria (like interracial marriages).
Cleave does an excellent job of discerning between Little Bee’s blunt descriptions and Sarah’s sometimes self-deprecating observations. It is necessary, really, to have two different narrators, as Sarah and Bee’s experiences and outlooks are so very different. Cleave also does a fantastic job of involving the reader with the story and weaving together flashbacks and the present-day. At times it seemed that he tried a little too hard to shock the readers. But the writing was strikingly different: he successfully wrote from the point of two women (a difficult enough task) and made them feel as natural and real as the neighbors down the street.
However, the story doesn’t progress in perfectly chronological order. The plot jumps around frequently, and some information is left out until midway through. Cleave does a good job of propelling the story onward. His way of doling information out keeps the orange paperback from ending up across the room under a pile of laundry. Some things are revealed immediately in “Little Bee,” while others are kept a mystery until nearly halfway through it. The beach scene, which the publishers accurately describe midway through the book as “horrific,” isn’t discussed in-depth until well into the book.
Part of the reason “Little Bee” is so striking is that it deals with political issues such as immigration by focusing on the heart. Rather than a list of numbers and deaths like the 11 o’clock news, Cleave puts Little Bee’s story in perspective. Instead of talking about the dehumanizing barbed wire and endless fluorescent lights of the detention center Little Bee visited, Cleave points out the forms girls have to fill out forms to get feminine supplies other than their one allotted sanitary napkin. It is with these arresting details that Cleave catches your attention and makes you not simply skim, but look, and think.
Little Bee’s deliberate English lends itself well to philosophical matters. She has opinions on nearly anything, from how to get away with saying anything to choosing death over deportation. Even her observations on tragedy sound like they could come right out of a college ethics class: “I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
With such a different and provoking story, Cleave’s reason for writing this is important to consider. It may not be to instill important morals, or to write a radical political book. Maybe it’s a cry out for the “floating people” of the world—and not just refugees and widows– to watch after each other and hope. As Bee puts it, “for the hopes of this whole human world to fit inside one soul.”